But when I started to map out our train route, I realized that there is no direct train to Modena. You simply have to stop by Parma. I look at trains (especially those involving lugging around suitcases) the same way I look at planes – if there is a direct flight, I would rather pay more for it. If I must transit, I should at least stop and take a break. And the parma ham loving part of me definitely didn’t mind stopping by Parma for a quick lunch. The only problem was if we took the train, where would we store our luggages while we looked around? A quick search revealed that Parma station does not have luggage storage facilities and neither do the local tourist centers.
After investigating our options (rent a car or get a driver), we decided to get a driver to drive us from La Spezia to Parma, stop for about 2 hours, before dropping us off at Modena. Luckily the NH La Spezia directed us to MB Shuttle, which found us a driver at a very reasonable price. It is one of those local travel agencies which you cannot randomly find on the web. They arrived promptly in a Mercedes Viano and safely drove us where we needed to go (without running off with our luggages in the middle). I highly recommend it. In fact here are their info:
Tel: +39 349 24411620 / +39 335 8070882 / +39 347 5185210/ +39 0187510545
We arrived at the Hotel Daniel in Parma after a 2 hour ride from La Spezia. We were not staying overnight. It just happened to be where the Ristorante Cocchi was, and that was where we had made our lunch reservations. So we decided to make it our base to explore Parma from. On hindsight that was not a good idea. We spent the better half of the hour walking through what was apparently an college area to where we think was the center of town and almost turned back before we actually got there. What I should have done was ask the driver to drive us around the key areas, and stopped to explore and take pictures where we wanted to.
But we prevailed and found ourselves at the Palazzo del Governatore, which looked like the equivalent of the center of town to us – where we should have started. I just looked on Google map. Apparently there are all sorts of basilicas and squares around the area. Anyway, we turned right off the square onto via Farini and ended up at La Prosciutteria Noi da Parma (no it was not a random turn, but a well researched one).
THIS is what I had imagined the entire Parma to be lined with on every street. Apparently not. We did not see any fake Parma football club jerseys either (we thought they would make good memorablias after the bankruptcy). I can kind of see why no one ever talks about going to Parma when visiting Italy. For the “real” parma ham experience, one apparently needs to go to the parma ham farms in the outskirts of town like the Salumificio “La Perla”.
We proceeded to buy a lot of parma ham and parmesan cheese anyway (they don’t pack it as air tightly as they do in Spain, but we put it in the fridge whenever we could and they survived the rest of our journey ok). I would have liked to explore the area some more, there were lots of interesting looking shops on the via Farini (including a Grom!). But we were running out of time, so we took a cab back to the Hotel Daniel for lunch.
At that point, I was having doubts about whether we picked the right restaurant for lunch. How on earth did we end up with a restaurant so out of the way, when there were plenty nice looking restaurants in the city center? Well I was pleasantly surprised. It turned out to be one of the best and most memorable meals in Italy.
You can tell by the decor and the staff that this is a genuinely old school family run restaurant. Besides us, the rest of the clientele seemed to be older local gentry (I’ve always had old people taste) who all knew the staff and each other very well. We spent our time theorizing who one particularly distinguish looking gentleman sitting alone might be. We concluded that he is potentially an ex-Italian mafia boss (very Grandfather like)!
The food was absolutely delicious. It was traditional Italian fine dining. They had THE best little warm pastry puffs (anyone know the name?) which they serve with the parma ham. I have had many parma ham before, but this was the first time we tried it with these pastry puffs and they were AMAZING. We even tried looking for them again in Florence but couldn’t find it. The ham was divine. My boyfriend discovered culatello, and now he cannot go back. The freshly made egg pasta were amazing. The texture, sauce etc. was just right. We had an apple pie and a chocolate tart for dessert, and they were good too. We were so happy and full after lunch, we all fell asleep on the car and didn’t wake up until we were in Modena.
Hint: Do make a reservations. Lunch was full on the random weekday we were there!
Modena – for car fanatics
Before this trip, I have never even heard of Modena. But I was surprised by how many of my friends who have. Besides being famous for food, Modena is apparently also a base for car fanatics. It conveniently sits between the Ferrari and Lambourghini factories (20 minutes by car each way).
- Ferrari: The Ferrari museum and factory is 20 minutes away by car in Maranello. There is even a more historical Ferrari museum within Modena, and there’s a shuttle bus that takes visitors from Modena to Maranello to visit the main museum. They do not offer factory tours though – not unless you are a Ferrari owner anyway, in which case that can be arranged.
- Lambourghini: When I was doing research, another friend of mine suggested we go to the Lambourghini Museum instead because you can make an appointment ahead and arrange a factory tour (apparently factory car tours are much cooler than regular museum tours). The Lambourghini museum however is 20 minutes in the opposite direction of the Ferrari museum, so if you only have one day you cannot do both together.
I asked my boyfriend whether Ferrari or Lambourghini was better, and the conversation went like this:
“It’s like asking me whether Hermes or Louis Vuitton is better.”
“Well obviously Hermes is better. So which is Hermes?”
He waved his hand in surrender and explained that they were equivalent in standing. He clearly doesn’t know his designer names well enough….
Acetaia di Giorgio
In the end, we decided that we don’t like cars enough to actually go all the way to a car museum/factory. Instead we went for a balsamic vinegar tour at Acetaia di Giorgio. I came across it after reading many “2 days in Modena” articles. Apparently Modena is famous for balsamic vinegar and is where the “real stuff” is made. I’ve never been a big fan of balsamic vinegar, but I figured since we are there….
Now I’m a convert. Apparently I have just been eating the wrong balsamic vinegar all my life. We managed to make a reservation one day ahead (she’s very responsive by email). Acetaia di Giorgio is 10 minutes away from our hotel by cab, and is located within a gorgeous private home that smelt of balsamic vinegar. We were welcomed by Giovanna, Giorgio’s wife. She gave us a tour of their attic where the balsamic vinegar barrels are stored, and proceeded to give us a quick history of balsamic vinegar, how it is made, how to differentiate real the “real” Modena balsamic vinegar and a most enlightening tasting of different ages of balsamic vingear. Some quick takeaways:
- Balsamic vinegar was created by accident by Italian royalty when they were actually trying to brew wine
- Real balsamic vinegar from Modena, the ones that goes through testing and certification every year, is always packaged in the round bottle below. The logo may differ from different makers, but the bottle is trademarked and specifically designed to look like the barrels they are aged in
- White cap is 12 years (45 euros), and gold cap is 25 years (72 euros). And then it differs from the different types of barrels it was aged in
- The viscosity is thicker than the ones you see overseas. Though there could be fakes out there with the same viscosity
- Barrels of balsamic vinegar were traditionally used as dowries for daughters of the family
- They have a letter from Barack and Michelle Obama framed!
The entire tour took about 45 minutes. The tour is theoretically free and you are not obligated to buy a bottle. But we were completely sold and the 4 of us walked away with 7 bottles. My only regret is not having bought more! Now I totally get what Massimo Bottura means, when he said that “In my blood is Balsamic Vinegar and my muscles are made of Parmigiano” on Chef’s Table. Good balsamic vinegar just makes everything taste better!
We had some time after the balsamic vinegar tour and before dinner. So we had some gelato and walked around the downtown a bit. There wasn’t any particular sights, but it was a nice little Italian town. Compared to Parma, Modena seemed much more commercial and gentrified in general. The streets were neat and cobbled stone, the shops were a mix of quaint little stores and global brand names. And for such a small town, we saw way more tourists than we did in Parma!
At a little before 8pm (the earliest dinner reservation available), we arrived at our much anticipated meal at Osteria Francescana. The #3 best restaurant in the world (now #2 wohoo!), we had booked 4 months in advance! We were welcomed by a legion of staff and quickly shown to our table. Since we came all this way, we all ordered the set menu and prepared for a very long night (we didn’t leave until well after 11pm).
I am not a foodie so I won’t go into the details of the food. But it was indeed one of the best fancy set meals I have had. I loved that it was fancy but still tasted good and wholesome (as Italian food should). He took normal everyday food and gave it a twist. The highlights for me (or at least the dishes that I still remember today) were the fish and the lasagna. The skin of the fish was deliciously crunchy and tasty, while the meat was tender and juicy (unlike the other fish I had in Italy). The lasagna had all the best crispy parts of a lasagna and tasted like a lasagna. But unlike regular lasagna, the texture was light and frothy.
Their service was impeccable (as one would expect). I was most impresssed that they gave the ladies menus without prices (and the men with) and dishes were served to the ladies first at exactly the same moment. Though there was a small mishap over a broken wine glass, which was quickly swept away. The chef, Massimo Bottura was also super nice. He came out to say hi to all the guests at one plint. My friend had brought his copy of “Never Trust a Skinny Chef” (a large hardcover book!) with him and Massimo kindly signed it. He even treated us to a “Oops I dropped the lemon tart” when we expressed disappointment that it wasn’t included in the set menu. I definitely wouldn’t mind going back in the future – especially after seeing Massimo Bottura’s episode of Chef’s Table (who knew he was such a romantic?). Now I feel like I would appreciate and understand even more!
Read about the rest of my Italy trip here!